The bicentenary of European settlement in Port Macquarie will be acknowledged in April 2021. The Port Macquarie News will publish monthly feature stories to mark the occasion.
Three short years after Port Macquarie was established as a penal colony a second, larger cemetery was required.
Allman Hill, our first cemetery site overlooking the mouth of the Hastings River, was restricted in size and capacity.
According to heritage consultant Mitch McKay a second cemetery was required for a number of reasons.
"A dramatic rise in the population of Port Macquarie and consequent increase in deaths, required authorities to select a new burying ground to replace the first one on Allman Hill (1821-1824)," he said.
"The site chosen was a peninsula of ground south of the settlement, at the confluence of Wrights and Kooloonbung Creeks.
"The four acre site selected had been described by John Oxley in 1818 as being bushy. It was cleared for the purposes of a cemetery.
"The cemetery was consecrated in 1824 and is the burial place for at least 1500 individuals whose lives contributed to and enriched the history and development of this area of New South Wales.
"In its layout and monuments it demonstrates the religious philosophies and changing attitudes to death."
In 1863 it was dedicated as a reserve for the preservation of graves, divided into distinct denominational sections and eventually closed to burials in 1886.
On December 21, 1910, the cemetery was formally dedicated for the preservation of graves.
The condition of the cemetery deteriorated for several decades, according to Mr McKay.
It was not until the 1960s that efforts were made to restore and recognise the significance of the cemetery as the last resting place of many of those who had contributed to the establishment and development of Port Macquarie and the Hastings district.
"Unfortunately, by this time many of the burial sites had become obscured and most monuments had fallen into disrepair," he added.
Since 1966-67, responsibility for the care, control and management of the cemetery has been vested in the local Port Macquarie-Hastings Council.
Mr McKay says the cemetery is important in the course and pattern of the cultural history of NSW because of its historical associations and it is a record of European settlement documenting the development and growth of Port Macquarie.
"It has strong associations with a number of individuals and families important in the development of Port Macquarie and NSW," he said.
"This cemetery exhibits a range of monumental styles reflecting changing approaches to the commemoration of the dead in a number of religious denominations.
"It has strong associations for social and cultural reasons with the past and the contemporary community of Port Macquarie, an area settled early in the development of the colony of NSW.
"The high esteem in which the place is held by a significant group within the community is reflected in the fact that it is still regularly visited.
"By virtue of its early date of commencement (1824, well prior to the commencement of civil registration of births, deaths and marriages in NSW), historical associations and surviving monuments, the cemetery possesses rare aspects of NSW's cultural history, is representative of early convict era burial grounds and demonstrates funerary monument styles and approaches to management of small cemeteries over a significant period of time."
Put simply, Mr McKay says, cemeteries allow the community to delve back into their past.
Mr McKay says the National Trust of Australia (NSW) recognises that monuments and graves represent the last public memorials of many people, both famous and unknown, who were intimately involved with the growth of a local area in which they are buried.
Headstones themselves, through the names, occupations, dates and epitaphs, provide a largely unique social, literary and economic record of the district.
The monuments also demonstrate the art of the stonemason whose skill and craftsmanship is not likely to be repeated.
"Cemeteries also have historic, social and religious values, providing genealogical information such as personal history and cause of death.
"In the case of headstones predating Civil Registration (pre-1856) a cemetery may provide the only records of men, women and children of early settlements.
"Different members of a family are often buried in adjacent plots, so the grouping of monuments may also be a source of genealogical information.
"Cemeteries reflect both the changing attitude of the community towards death, and developments in architectural and artistic style and theory.
"This can be found in the landscape design and layout of the cemetery, and in the monument styles, grave surrounds and grave furniture."
They also display a variety of artistic approaches represented in the architecture of the monuments and in the quality of craftsmanship.
A monumental mason's name often appears on the monument or headstone, allowing the craftsmen to be identified and lettering for the inscription and patterns of the iron grave surrounds may demonstrate fine workmanship.
Human remains in a cemetery are not visible but they comprise a major element of heritage significance.
This can include archaeological and scientific potential, issues of religious belief, their meaning to relatives, and general community respect for our ancestors.
Mr McKay says these issues remain relevant for unmarked graves and for burial areas cleared of previous monuments, as well as marked grave sites.
Various different types of cemeteries in a town or district illustrate the patterns of settlement in an area. In isolated areas in the 19th century, there was no government provision for burials.
So, in the early phases of settlement, especially beyond defined boundaries or districts, lone graves and family cemeteries were dominant, Mr McKay said.
"As small religious communities developed, churchyards or denominational burial grounds were established.
"Only when an area was officially identified as a village or township and properly surveyed would the government dedicate a general cemetery for the community."
Mitch McKay is a multi-award winning heritage consultant and principal of Port Macquarie Hastings Heritage, a heritage practice based in Port Macquarie.
In addition to his heritage consultancy Mitch conducts two highly acclaimed walking tours within the former convict settlement of Port Macquarie these being the Uncovering Our Past - Port Macquarie's History and Archaeology and Grave Tales - Port Macquarie Historic Cemetery.
These tours 'bring history to life' and make the practice unique in the profession of heritage consultancy in Australia.
Information about these tours can be found at https://www.pmheritage.com.au/walking-tours or by contacting 0447 429 016.
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